Do you sometimes feel you are going crazy? Does your partner belittle you, then praise you immediately afterwards? Have you repeatedly caught someone out in a lie, but they continually deny it? These are all signs of gaslighting.

But can you unintentionally gaslight someone? Is there such a thing as unconscious gaslighting where the gaslighter doesn’t realise they are doing it? That’s a tricky question to answer, but first, let us recap on gaslighting and what it is.

Can gaslighting be unconscious?

Gaslighting is intentional behaviour used by manipulators such as psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists to exert control. It distorts your view of reality and makes you question your actions, your memory, and in extreme cases, your sanity. 

“Gaslighting often evokes disturbing emotions, low self-esteem, and cognitive dyscontrol by causing the individual [i.e., gaslightee] to question his own abilities for thinking, perceiving, and reality testing.” T, Dorpat, 1994

Gaslighting includes:

  • Trivialising your feelings
  • Denying or forgetting
  • Changing the subject
  • Projecting the problem onto you
  • Questioning your memory
  • Refusing to listen to you
  • Giving you the silent treatment

There are not many studies on gaslighting, in particular, unconscious gaslighting. Much research tends to be anecdotal. However, even though there is a limited range of studies, commonalities occur.

I will use ‘gaslighter’ and ‘gaslightee’ to differentiate between the perpetrator and the victim. 

8 traits of unconscious gaslighting

The following traits are evident in unconscious gaslighting: 

  1. There is a power imbalance within the relationship
  2. The gaslighter is the dominant person in the relationship
  3. Gaslighters are charismatic and charming
  4. Gaslighters have power in the relationship
  5. The gaslightee is typically vulnerable
  6. The gaslightee seeks approval from the gaslighter
  7. The gaslightee has low self-confidence
  8. Gaslightees tend to want to avoid conflict

So now we know what gaslighting is, who is most likely to gaslight, and who will be a victim. But does that help us understand whether you can unintentionally gaslight someone? 

How can gaslighting be unintentional? 

Earlier studies focused on domestic abuse cases involving psychological and physical abuse. Results showed that gaslighting is a masculine behaviour that targets women in relationships. 

However, later research shows that gaslighting is not specific to personal relationships.

More recently, the term gaslighting has been used as a definition in political abuse of power, to incite racial tensions, cover up lies from large corporations and insert false information into the media.

Now, this is interesting because experts always presumed that gaslighting is an intended action to exert control within a relationship. But if it is common amongst different scenarios, unconscious gaslighting might be possible.

Let’s go back to what gaslighting is:

Gaslighting is a manipulation of the truth. The information offered or projected may include half-truths, denials, misinformation, downright lies, exaggerations, concealment, and scorn. 

In the past, the term gaslighting referred to manipulators wanting to control their victims. 

Robin Stern is the author of The Gaslight Effect and spoke to NBC News

“The target of the gaslighting is terrified to change up [the relationship] or step out of the gaslighting dynamic because the threat of losing that relationship — or the threat of being seen as less than who you want to be seen as to them — is quite a threat.” R Stern, PhD, Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence 

But now that psychologists are describing gaslighting as a psychological tactic outside personal relationships, there is the possibility that the gaslighting is unintentional. In other words, the gaslighter is not acting with malice or abusive intent. 

The gaslighter may not be conscious of gaslighting. They may simply be trying to manipulate the truth or conceal a lie. In other words, gaslighting doesn’t have to be intentional for a person to be gaslighted. 

Examples of unconscious gaslighting 

Gaslighting occurs when we try bending or distorting a person’s sense of reality. But you could equally describe it as trying to persuade someone to accept your point of view. 

Here are a few situations where you can unconsciously gaslight someone or be subject to unintentional gaslighting yourself. 

School

School can be a place of unintentional gaslighting. We all desperately want to fit in with the in-group. This can lead to some people deliberately withholding their opinion for fear of being ridiculed. Or it can lead to others trivialising a person’s feelings.

In both examples, the objective is not necessarily to gaslight someone. 

Race/Culture

There are racial stereotypes that depict black women as strong and independent. As a result, some black women may feel as if they cannot ask for help when they need it.

“Mental health is not something that is spoken about openly and honestly in the black community, which is changing, but there is this image of the strong black woman who can’t be broken and doesn’t need help.” – Sophie Williams, author of Millennial Black

Religion

Say that you have strong religious beliefs and want to spread the word as you see it to your friends. If your friends are not interested, you may resort to behaviours that typify gaslighting, such as refusing to listen or getting angry when challenged. 

Child abuse

Cheryl Muir is a relationship coach based in the UK. She noticed that parents often tried to hide or deny situations such as alcoholism, substance or domestic abuse from their children.

One or both parents may want to protect the child from what’s happening in the house. In the short term, this tactic may ease the situation, but long term, this is a perfect example of unconscious gaslighting.

“That is a form of gaslighting, so from a young age if you’re not able to trust what your parents are saying, you go on to not be able to trust anyone else.” Cheryl Muir, relationship coach.

Dysfunctional family

Disapproving parents can crush their children’s self-esteem if they constantly belittle or put them down.

The child may grow up to doubt their decisions because she is worried that her parents won’t agree with her. This is a double whammy of unconscious gaslighting by the parents, with an adult who doesn’t know she is being gaslighted. 

This behaviour is becoming more prevalent these days. As such, it’s difficult to know whether gaslighting is intentional or not. You may not realise you are being unintentionally gaslighted.

Moreover, you might not recognise that you are the person who is unconsciously gaslighting someone. But if in doubt, look for the following signs.

8 signs of unconscious gaslighting

  1. Being isolated from people that share your opinion
  2. The gaslighter puts down the opinions of people you admire
  3. The gaslighter becomes angry when you share your opinion
  4. The gaslighter is sad and disappointed with you
  5. The gaslighter makes it difficult for you to access alternative information
  6. You avoid sharing opinions to avoid conflict
  7. You seek their approval and agree with them 
  8. You stop speaking out in public

Final thoughts

Gaslighting is an insidious way to control someone. But it is possible to be the subject of unconscious gaslighting and also the perpetrator. I think it is important to remember that the only thing we can control is our own behaviour. 


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